Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Pale Fire" and its manifold weirdness which makes it unlike the others: Part II - A Dash of Plot Summary

In part because Kevin asked for it and in part because I can't stop thinking about this friggin' book, I have opted to write a second, follow up post about "Pale Fire." This time, as the title suggests, concerning primarily a few main points of its plot (because I really wish to not give all that much about it away, seeing as reading the novel is, without a doubt, better than my rehashing of it).

But before I get to that I wanted to mention I've found it really interesting that there's a debate about Nabokov's intent with respect to the earnestness of the poem "Pale Fire" itself. I'm told that previously it was considered a satire and John Shade himself a stand-in parody of various notable 19th-2oth century American poets mentioned in Kinbote's notes, one of whom in specific was Robert Frost (and the stygian quality of each poet's surname seems awfully coincidental, if nothing else). But there's a new school of thought, which it seems Nabokov might well have agreed with -- if his son is to be believed, that argues the poem was done with no such satire in mind. It was meant to be interpreted as a sincere attempt, whether one thinks it hit the mark or not. Although I wasn't completely taken with the poem myself (especially in a more lyrical sense), I can say I thought it was interesting how it told its story, with a lucidity of pith that wasn't -- by all I've read of him -- Nabokov's default mode, writing-wise. (Though the poem's still characteristically Nabokovian, I do believe.)

All right, so to at last get down to the point of this post, let's run through the key story line points that define "Pale Fire," shall we? Dr. Kinbote is, as far as we know, a real person, an academic who admires the poetry of John Shade, a canonical poet. (I say "as far as we know" because there are those who speculate about his reality, of whether he is a conjuration of Shade or any number of different possibilities.) The novel is broken up as mentioned in the earlier post by three sections, Kinbote's foreward, the poem itself, and Kinbote's subsequent notes which tell the bulk of the story. That story mainly involves Kinbote's homeland, Zembla. He makes it very clear his hope in John Shade's poem was that Zembla would be realized in wonderful prose, which is why he went to such lengths to tell its many stories and describe its scenery with persistence to the venerable poet during the pair's walks. It's also clear, frequently, that despite his fluency, Kinbote hardly understands the finer points of human interaction. He rarely gets hints that he's not wanted. And when he does pick up on them, he's usually contrived an excuse for Shade, disparaging whoever else (usually Sybil, Shade's wife) is culpable enough to attach blame.

Zembla's king, of whom Kinbote makes no bones he is a devoted subject, has been forced into exile in a recent uprising by ostensibly proletarian forces more or less supported by the USSR. This then leads to the parallel running narrative of Gradus, a villainous anti-royalist, sent after the king to, apparently, kill him. Fairly early on it's said that Gradus is John Shade's murderer (and yes, the climax of the story leads to the death of John Shade, but I don't consider this a spoiler; Shade's being dead is revealed in the foreward), and so in Kinbote's notes the two men's narratives run parallel, with Kinbote noting where each was in relation to the other (Shade completing his epic poem and Gradus' movement about Europe and elsewhere abroad) as they moved towards their fatal collision. All of this, believe me, has one questioning the sanity of Kinbote, who seems rather loony, I don't mind saying.

Another final point as regards plot and narrative structure is how unconcerned, almost dismissive, Kinbote seems to be apropos of the poem's real content. I began to feel, and there should be no mistaking this, that Nabokov was pointing out the absurdity of any serious literary critique, certainly of the academic variety, and his notes were principally meant to showcase how much of oneself said academics put into their "objective" analyses of authors' works. (Make no mistake, I see that I myself am doing the very same thing, here and now, even; but I do hope it's clear likewise that I am aware of how much of myself I cloyingly put into these analyses. The point is: please do not reject me).

Have a very great Sunday everybody!